The Men’s European Triples Championship was held on 24-27 September in Albena, Bulgaria and our representatives were last year’s Masters winners, Derek, Istvan and me. A total of 34 nations competed, with the top 24 being given an automatic place in next year’s World Championships.
Albena is a holiday resort in Eastern Bulgaria, on the Black Sea. The facilities there were good and most of the players and delegates were accommodated in the same all inclusive hotel which made for a friendly and social atmosphere off the piste. Teams arrived gradually over the week and there was plenty to do in the run up to the competition, with 8 pistes at the hotel there was ample opportunity to practice and scope out potential opponents.
The arena – a multi-use sports hall – was only five minutes walk from the hotel, meaning we could all easily get back there for breaks, showers and food when we needed to. The play area was constructed using a base of carpet to protect the hall’s floor. On top of that was an inch or so of sand (which had been compacted after spraying with water) and on top of that a layer of chips of 1/2 to 1 inch, at variable depths. It was challenging and both pointing and shooting would prove very difficult. Wild bounces (due to the springy base) were common and a point within 1/2 a meter was a good effort. There were no rewards for anything other than perfect hits when shooting. Clipping boules only moved them fractionally, you couldn’t be short unless you had masses of back spin. But a direct hit would most likely be rewarded with a carreau. Tough and not the sort of piste we play on every day, but it was the same for everyone and we had no complaints.
At Congress on Thursday afternoon we learned who our opponents would be – we drew one of the seeded teams – Spain. We knew that would be difficult but were looking forward to testing ourselves against quality opposition. But before that, Istvan was up in the qualifying round of the Shooting on Thursday night. He scored five which he was disappointed with, but as a first timer at the event, it was nerve wracking and a lot of shots only missed narrowly. A good effort for his first time. While there, we watched other competitors – Dylan Rocher scored a massive 63 and others scored highly, including the Slovak shooter with 47 (we would play against him later in the competition, although we didn’t know it at the time).
Friday morning arrived and our first match against Spain lasted 3 ends. 4-4-5 to be exact. We just didn’t get going at all, nerves might have played a part but in truth, none of us could string any decent play together. The odd good pointing shot we did manage was promptly dispatched by their shooters (all 4 were excellent shooters as we had seen in the previous days at the hotel pistes). A short, sharp 13-0 lesson and a wait before round 2.
The format for the first 5 games was Swiss, meaning that our next game would be against another team who lost in the first round. We drew Lithuania. Suddenly the nerves were gone and we all started to click. Cue a reverse of our last game, a 13-0 win in 5 ends. We pointed exceptionally well and kept the pressure on their shooter all game. Tails up we headed for an early lunch (as all the other games were still going on). We’d only thrown 16 boules each all morning!
In the afternoon, we were drawn against Turkey – a very young team who looked like they could play a bit. It was a hard fought game and Istvan had his best shooting game. But Turkey made the points when it mattered most and we lost 13-7. We were disappointed as we thought we had the making of them, but just couldn’t take all of the chances we were given. So, 1 win and 2 losses.
Up next, Slovakia. This was a really close match. We started well but our play dropped quite quickly and we found ourselves 3-10 down. After giving ourselves a talking to, we began to pick up and slowly we managed to claw our way back into it. The score by the end of the last ‘timed’ end was 8-11. All to play for with 2 ends left. We took the next end with 2 points to make the score 10-11 heading into the last end. By this time we’d broken their shooter and the 4th player was substituted in for the last end. Do or die. We didn’t play a particularly good end, and their sub’s first shot was a carreau at 9 meters which put the pressure on. However, we managed to engineer the position where we were lying 2nd and 3rd (both within about 30cms) and, with our last boule of the end, Derek shot their holding shot out. They would have 2 boules to point inside our 2 – real pressure given the difficult surface. The Slovakian milieur dealt with the pressure though and pointed his first onto the cochonnet. So we lost, but it we put up a good show.
Play then stopped for the afternoon for dinner, with the 1/4 finals of the shooting that evening, we could have a well earned rest. We knew we’d play Russia in the morning. Hopes of a place in the top 16 had gone by now, but a win would ensure we wouldn’t need face a playoff to make it into the last 16 in the B Championship.
So into Friday am and against Russia who we had been told might give us a hard game. It wasn’t to be however, we played very well and they struggled. In the end it was a comfortable win 13-6 for Scotland. We therefore ended the Swiss with 2 wins, ranked 25th. This meant we avoided the playoff and straight into last 16 poule with Estonia, Poland and San Marino which we thought was quite a good draw.
Our first game in the poule was against Poland who were, on paper at least, a good match as they finished 24th in the Swiss, just ahead of us. Again, though, we struggled to get going and their pointer was deadly, putting us under pressure every end. Before we knew it the game was over, a 13-0 loss. Most disappointing given that we felt we should have given a much better account. But we still had a chance of getting to the top 8 if we won our next two games.
Next up was San Marino, the losers of the other game in our poule – lose and we would be out. We steadied ourselves and, despite a couple of shaky ends, managed to string together some strong ends and won 13-6. That meant we would then play Estonia for a place in the top 8 in the next round.
The Estonia game was one of those where momentum swung back and forth. Having lost the first 2 ends we found ourselves down 0-5. We then rallied and took the score all the way to 12-5 before becoming stuck. At each of the next 3 ends we lost one point, saved each time by a good point or two to limit their scoring ability. Now at 12-8 we found ourselves again struggling and this time, we’d played all our boules out with them holding shot and holding 3 in hand. We were, thankfully, holding 2nd and 3rd and they decided not to shoot. Their milieur put his first point wide and through the back of the head, but with his second, got a wicked bounce and knocked their holding shot out, leaving us sitting with 2 points with only their shooter left to play the final boule. He didn’t manage to point in and so we won 13-8. They were gutted, quite rightly, as they must have felt we were there for the taking having made a good comeback. So, into the last 8.
Germany were up next on Sunday morning – we knew this would be a stiff challenge as, while the German’s would be really disappointed not to be playing in the main competition, they would be fired up to do well in the B. And so it proved. Like the game against Spain, we didn’t get a look in and lost 13-0. So, we were out and finished in joint 5th place in the B competition. We’d have to wait until after the end for our final ranking, but we knew we’d done enough to secure an automatic place in next year’s World Championships. In the end, we ranked 21st and we all agreed that was a good job done. We’d faced some really stiff opponents at times, lost some we could have won and we could have played better, but in the end I think we all felt we’d achieved more than expected.
We watched the semi finals and final of the shooting and the A competition. The final of the shooting between Belgium and Italy was really exciting, with both players tied on 44 at the end – each then had one attempt at each of the 5 disciplines from 7 metres. In the end, Diego Rizzi of Italy won after a 45 minute battle. France won the A competition.
That night we went to the gala dinner and were treated to a nice meal, music, dancing and a free bar. It was a great event and we made a lot of new friends.
In all, a great experience and one which we all hope we will be able to play in again some time.